03 March 2009

Tracking Little Leaguers

As my inaugural post, I repeat an example I used last week to illustrate mobility paths in my Introduction to Social Stratification course.

My twin sons recently went through their first Little League draft, to join the American League. This league is for children who turn 9 by April 30, and it is characterized by draft selection, fancier uniforms, and the spectacle of kids pitching to kids. Up to this point, any child could participate in baseball, and the teams have typically been composed of school and family friends. Tee-ball and coach-pitch games have been convivial affairs, with parents socializing on the sidelines, and coaches and volunteers shepherding kids to home plate and then again from base to base (in the early years, one sees a lot of wrong-way running). No one keeps official score, but the kids try to, with the final score invariably reflecting a win for their own team.

Now, everything is about to change. All the kids that want to play still get to, but their selection onto teams depends on their performance in a draft. In the draft, the coaches rank the players by ability and then select them onto teams (with the rankings and selection order kept secret by the coaches). The goal is to create more evenly-matched teams, and then to begin keeping score and reflecting each team's performance on a league scoreboard.

Creating more evenly-matched teams will certainly make for more competitive games. But this year is really just the beginning of the tracking process in youth sports, where the opportunities to move up begin to narrow. I suggested to my students that this reflects 'contested mobility', a concept illustrated in Ralph Turner's classic piece on social mobility (1960). In that piece, Turner characterizes the U.S. school system as a system of contested mobility where individuals seek elite positions through the means of an open contest, purportedly based on merit. The best, most talented will ascend to the top, and those in the middle go to middling positions, and so on. But, as we have seen in the U.S., a contest based on merit assumes a level playing field, which we do not have, in school or in youth baseball. Our educational system does not receive children with the same level of school preparation, nor does it create level outcomes for children at the other end, and neither does baseball. The draft was an attempt to identify talent, but it also reflects much more. Certainly, there were some clearly talented kids at the draft, batting at the balls coming out of the pitching machine or successfully catching fly balls. But, how fair was the contest? One student in my class wondered how much my children's performance in the draft, for example, might have been influenced by social capital investments. Indeed, the fact that I have signed the kids up for baseball each year gives them an edge in experience. The pre-draft warm-up course in which my sons participated over three evenings several months ago also was an investment in their skills. And, the encouragement from extended family helps, the support from grandparents and aunts on the sidelines, and gifts of mitts and baseball bags. So, the draft doesn't only reflect talent, but also level of preparation and other intangibles.

This year, such investments may not matter all that much. But, next year, the path narrows even more apparently, as the draft rankings determine which kids go on to the elite league and which ones to the common league. Merit, or talent, remain the basis of the ranking in the draft, but from this point, the system begins to resemble what Turner calls the sponsored mobility track, where the elite are identified relatively early in the process and put on a separate track altogether, while the rest are directed into another track.

These two kinds of mobility systems, sponsored and contested, have other kinds of distinctions. Turner brings up the difficulties of ensuring loyalty to either kind of system (e.g. how to get the masses vested in systems in which most of them will never reach the top). It will be interesting to see how Little League fosters that American loyalty to baseball that seizes the populace each spring, even though most of those fans never got picked for the elite teams in Little League. Something still inspires them to 'play ball' or to fork out money to watch it being played. Needless to say, I'll have lots of time to ponder this as I sit on the sidelines during the interminable innings of kid-pitch baseball this spring.

(Citation: Turner, Ralph H. 1960. "Sponsored and contested mobility and the school system." American Sociological Review 25.)

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